Top ad execs are urging media buyers to rethink their spend with UK tabloids following widespread criticism of the Caroline Flack coverage, with one likening support for titles like The Sun and The Daily Mail as a "whip-round for the office bully".
Love Island host Flack died on Saturday (15 February). In recent months, hundreds of articles have been published about the late TV presenter, with coverage centring around her arrest for allegedly assaulting her partner, subsequent charge and court case, and now her death by suicide.
In a now-deleted article published one day before Flack's death, The Sun highlighted to its 2.6 million daily British readers (all platforms) a Valentine’s Day card that mocked the star with an ‘I’ll f*** lamp you’ message. Its coverage also included photos of the bloody scene of the alleged assault and the headline ‘Flack, Sack and Whack for ITV’ in a front-page story about Flack stepping down from Love Island.
Following the news, The Daily Mail published a piece about the interior of her London apartment. It was accompanied by a social media post, captioned: "Inside Caroline Flack's flat: photos reveal interior of tragic Love Island star's London apartment where she killed herself."
James Mitchinson, editor of a resurgent Yorkshire Post, branded The Mail's article as “the kind of ‘journalism’ that ruins lives”. At least 218,634 supporters of a petition on Change.org who want stricter laws to safeguard celebrities and people in the public eye agree.
After being taken off air on Sunday, Love Island, the programme Flack presented until her suspension by ITV following her arrest, returned to screens on Monday with a memorial to Flack and a message from the Samaritans in place of its usual Just Eat idents. The hit show has been indirectly linked with several tragedies.
Paul Frampton Calero, the former UK and Ireland chief executive of media buying group Havas who now leads marketing firm Control v.Exposed, has been highly critical of tabloid coverage and said the industry must rethink the way it supports such titles.
He said: "Was it really necessary to print pictures of the so-called crime scene after Flack was accused of 'lamping' her boyfriend? Or to file the Valentine’s Day card article which similarly poked fun at her? The Sun has printed salacious headlines to sell newspapers before, but its hounding of Flack in these days of evil Instagram and Twitter trolls has set a new low.
"Is it acceptable that an industry that funds this journalism turns a blind eye to this? Not in my book, no.
"With Leveson Two scrapped by the government and PM Johnson not looking a likely contender to reverse that, we must look to the industry that funds the media and content platforms where the content lives."
Running an ad next to this content, in Frampton's view, is equivalent to endorsing or condoning it. He gave his support to the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) and urged advertisers to do the same.
Jacob Dubbins, co-chair of CAN and managing director of agency Media Bounty, described it as a “bleak situation”. He insisted denying tabloids ad revenue because of the nature of their coverage was not tantamount to censorship.
“There is a big difference between protecting the freedom of the press and getting paid for bullying," he said. "If you were at work and a woman was getting relentlessly bullied in the office, would you try to stop it or would you do a whip-round to collect some money in order to pay the bully? This is where we are right now.
“We need journalism now more than ever to hold society, politicians and institutions to account. But this is different. This is an economic model where monetised clickbait appears to be worth more than the life of a human being.
"Advertisers want to advertise in safe environments, they also recognise their responsibility in funding great journalism, but most don’t want to pay for bullying."
Taking action, Dubbins and co have been quietly informing the advertisers who appeared next to the worst Flack content, which include some of the UK’s leading brands. It is a distinct approach to hate demonetisation groups like Sleeping Giants, which do such lobbying in the open to pressure brands in the public eye.
Dubbins continued: “A nasty article 10 years ago may have sold more copies, it may have been talked about over a garden fence or a pint, it may have even made the broadcast news. Now a nasty article can arm the trolls to directly target an individual through social media with unimaginable abuse. This is a broken and ethically bankrupt business model.”
Damien Bennett, director of strategy at Incubeta, said that questionable and intrusive tabloid pieces have been around since the days of Princess Diana, continuing to affect other public figures like Jade Goody, Amy Winehouse and Meghan Markle.
He said that publishers have a responsibility beyond clickbait reporting, but warned advertisers to be careful of interfering with editorial policy. "It sets a bad precedent. For example, in 2015 The Telegraph was rightly chastised for seeming to spike certain stories relating to HSBC – one of its big advertisers.”
Meanwhile, Ian Murray, Society of Editors executive director, spoke in defence of the media, at least some segments of it. He condemned politicians “using the tragic death as a means to attack the media”.
“Caroline was an extremely popular personality with much of the public with her appearances on Strictly and Love Island and she was given coverage in the media for many years prior to recent events, the vast majority of it very positive," said Murray.
He warned against banning the media from reporting such cases, claiming it was a matter of public interest. “To believe that by silencing mainstream media on such matters would prevent speculation on social media where rumour and accusations run unchecked by the regulations the media adheres to is both naive and dangerous.”
Independent press regulator IPSO confirmed to The Drum that there had been complaints around Flack’s coverage from the media, while the Mail and The Sun had not responded to The Drum's requests for comment at the time of publication.